'Worried about food, water, safety; living in constant fear'
New Delhi: When 21-year-old Nirmal Kumar woke up to air raid sirens at 7 am on Thursday in Vinnytsia, he was worried but did not expect anything as authorities had told them the previous night that these were just alert sirens. Half an hour later, he heard it — "The building, our entire apartment, tables, chairs everything was shaking violently," he said.
Russian forces had attacked a Ukrainian military base camp on the outskirts of the small town in the centre of the country.
Since then, Nirmal says air raid sirens have been blaring all over Vinnytsia as residents in the town started lining up outside grocery stores and ATMs to stock up for an unknown period of time.
As the Indian Embassy in Ukraine urged all nationals in the country to stay put and stock up for at least one week and specifically advised that no one move towards Kyiv, the Capital city, tens of thousands of students, many of whom had just had their air tickets cancelled at the last minute, hunkered down — now worried about finding bomb shelters and stocking up enough groceries, water and food for as long as they could.
Vaishnavi, a 22-year-old MBBS student at the Ternopil National Medical University, said that she and around 300 other Indian students from her university were trying their best to stock up on groceries but had to wait in lines for over one hour to even reach the checkout counter. "We even have to buy water here and even for that there are long queues," she said as her friend Malaika worried about their friends who were stuck in cities like Vinnytsia, Kyiv and Kharkiv.
While several medical students had managed to leave Ukraine in the nick of time, the ones stuck in railway stations, apartments and hostels currently say that either the tickets they had booked were cancelled or they were unable to get bookings due to the rush and some others, with limited means said they simply couldn't afford the tickets, which were now more than double the regular fare.
Vaishnavi's father, Sandeep Gulunjkar, a BSNL staffer in Pune, said that they had booked a flight for her and five of her friends at over Rs 60,000. "They were supposed to reach Kyiv by train today (Thursday) and take a flight out tomorrow (Friday). All of it was cancelled… She is our only daughter. We just hope the authorities are doing everything they can to get our kids back home safe," he told Millennium Post over the phone.
Nirmal, stuck in Vinnytsia, said his flight booking for March 7 (because he could not get an earlier flight), was also cancelled. "Safe nahi lag raha hai yahan (We don't feel safe here)... Sirens are going off all around us. Last time they sounded the siren, we heard the attacks. Now we are being told that missiles are flying over Kyiv," he said even as a group of Indian students stranded in Kyiv were being rushed into bunkers, hostels and apartments by Embassy officials as they tried to figure out an exit plan for them.
Meanwhile, near the Akademmistechko metro station in the Capital city, a group of eight university students — all from different cities in Gujarat — locked themselves in their apartment. One of the students, from Surat, told Millennium Post over the phone: "There's already been one round of air raid sirens in our area... We are hearing about fighting in the city. We need help."
A little over 12 kilometres into the city centre, in his university hostel lodging, 22-year-old 4th year MBBS student at Bogomolets National Medical University, Souhardya Majumder, from Kolkata's Dutta Bagan area, was ignoring over 30 messages on WhatsApp — all from friends, relatives and loved ones. "I can't deal with this now… We don't know what to do. The university just suspended classes today and asked us to find our way home." Two hours later, Majumder messaged Millennium Post: "My friends were just at Vokzal Railway station — five to seven kilometres from where I am — they said they heard loud sirens… But we are safe here and can't see anything happening."
Majumder too had tried to get out of town. After trying for hours, he had managed to book a flight out of Ukraine on March 8. Now stuck, he said: "We saw our batchmates from other countries being evacuated from the first week of February itself.
Back in Vinnytsia, Nirmal said that he had stepped out to get groceries when he spotted a plume of smoke and ran back inside. "On my way in, I just saw a group of soldiers run into a building." Even as the student, from a Rajasthan village, recorded yet another voice message with the air raid sirens going off in the background, he said he was unable to reach some of his friends, who he knew were stuck in Kharkiv, where many reported internet outages and mobile network issues.
"I don't know how the situation will be in a couple of hours. Worried about what will happen at night," Nirmal said.
However, students in Ternopil said that they did not hear of or see any disturbance in the town except for locals clamouring to stock up supplies. "We are able to talk to our parents. But we can't say what will happen in the next few hours or day," Malaika said.
By late evening on Thursday, Vinnytsia had fallen silent and students like Nirmal and his friends were frantically filling out Embassy-circulated forms to be picked up by officials from the nearest border exit route - to a country from where they can be brought back to India. "They are saying they will get us out in two days. Don't know what will happen in these two days."